It became abundantly clear to me after all the fall Jewish holidays how much we, as a Jewish community, are contributing to the climate crisis. To be fair, I can’t actually prove that, but it certainly feels that way.
This week we enter the Hebrew month of Mar Cheshvan, a month that the rabbis tell us is “mar” — bitter — because it has no holidays. That’s a sharp contrast to Tishrei, the month we just completed. But for me, when I reflect on the month of Tishrei, I feel sad about the Jewish community’s unnecessary forms of waste.
On Rosh Hashanah, in my synagogue, our children blew on plastic shofarot to bring in the New Year. I wondered how many of those plastic shofarot we have been responsible for putting in the landfills through the decades.
On Yom Kippur, during the final moments of Neilah, the concluding service of the holiday, our children marched into the sanctuary with colorful plastic glow sticks. They used a new (second) shofar to join us for the final shofar blast. I’m guessing both are already in the trash.
On Sukkot, we used plastic zip ties to ensure that the natural bamboo skach on top of the sukkah was tied securely to the metal poles. When we removed our lulavim and etrogim from the packaging, each element of the lulav was individually wrapped in plastic, while the etrog nestled so gingerly in a fluffy Styrofoam encasing. How many of us recycled these plastics and packaging? Between the zip ties and the plastic packaging, I noticed the irony between the themes of harvest and nature often associated with the holiday of Sukkot, and our dependence on man-made quickly-disposed products on that holiday.
To round out our holiday season on Simchat Torah, we gathered in a celebratory dinner, honoring two of our most valuable volunteers. There was a set of plastic utensils, totaling another 500 unrecyclable plastic pieces destined for the landfills, at each place setting — not to mention all 160 of our tiny plastic disposable Kiddush cups. In past years, we added to the décor by filling the room with balloons, which we subsequently would pop and throw into a landfill at the conclusion of the holiday.
I think about other holidays or rituals throughout the year and our lack of attention to our unnecessary waste on those holidays. On Chanukah, we wrap presents in wrapping paper, only to immediately throw it into the garbage. On Purim, we use single-use cellophane to wrap beautiful mishloach manot, gift baskets to send to our friends. And on Pesach? Where do I start? Many families I know completely switch over to plastics before, during, and even after the holiday, just to make their lives easier. And even if you think you are using those “paper” plates, most of them are coated with — you guessed it — plastic. On Pesach, some of us even wrap every inch of our kitchen countertops, our burners, our spigots, with aluminum foil. And let’s not forget Shabbat, an occasion when many families, week after week, use disposable tablecloths, cups, and aluminum tins.
I know I might sound like Debbie Downer. You might say to me, “But these things make the holidays so much more beautiful, rabbi.”
“The room looks so much nicer with balloons.”
“But the kids love those glow necklaces.”
“You are really going to take away those plastic shofarot from the children?”
In truth, none of the plastic products that I mentioned are a requirement to fulfill any mitzvah associated with the holiday. If that were true, perhaps the Jewish community would have another ethical dilemma to debate. And yes, I can see how these things might help with the concept of “hiddur mitzvah” — of beautifying a mitzvah. But there are certainly alternatives. Even if people claim that they use disposables for kashrut purposes, there are biodegradable, compost-friendly kosher ways of using disposable plates, utensils, and cups.
And let’s call a spade a spade. Yes, it’s about enhancing the holiday in beautiful ways, but it’s really about convenience and cost. I understand that it would take longer to wash reusable plates, utensils, and coffee mugs. I get that. I also understand that disposable paper goods are cheap. But in exchange for our convenience and budgets, we are really being careless with our world.
According to Plastic Oceans International, more than eight million tons of plastics are dumped into the oceans each year. One study conducted last year by Scientific Reports reported that a floating island of trash coined the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” stretches 600,000 square miles in the Pacific, three times the size of the state of Texas. And I’m sure it’s grown since last year.
All this disposable waste doesn’t even scratch the surface of things that our synagogues, organizations, and families do that contribute to our global crisis. Food waste, energy consumption, and even gas-powered lawn maintenance are some more of the many areas that we as an organized Jewish community could do better. There are alternatives to nearly everything these days: disposable Ziplocs, plastic toothbrushes, and disposable diapers.
On Yom Kippur, I gave a sermon in my synagogue about the sin of not protecting the environment. In part, it was inspired by the recent activism of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who has lobbied across the globe, including at the United Nations, regarding the urgency of our environmental crisis. Many have dismissed her claims or her ideas, pointing to her disability, some even comparing her rise to activism to the rise of Nazi Germany. But the urgency of her words is real. I have given many sermons on the High Holy Days, and this one seemed to have more of an impact on members of my community than any other one I have ever delivered.
I began my sermon by sharing how a person in front of me at the fruit store put all her produce in individual plastic bags before putting them on a scale — a behavior that many of us learned from childhood. So, her apples went in one plastic bag, her Brussels sprouts in another — and even her bananas (which already were wrapped in plastic) were on the scale in another plastic bag.
My scenario gave people a chance to think about their own environmental habits. After all, most of us throw away those plastic bags shortly after we use them, so we literally use them only to put them on the scale and take them home. Why can’t we just put our produce directly in another (hopefully reusable) bag? And if we are worried about our food being clean, aren’t we washing it before we eat it anyway?
On the way out the door after my Yom Kippur sermon, I personally handed each family a reusable, washable produce bag and encouraged them to buy a stash for their own home.
After the holiday was over, I had an abundance of people who offered to step up and create change within our shul or who shared how they were motivated to make changes in their homes.
“Rabbi, as a teacher, I am now more careful about the types of supplies I am ordering for my classroom so that they are reusable.”
“Rabbi, I ordered 15 more of those produce bags and those are the only ones I use in the fruit store.”
“Rabbi, I’ll be happy to help wash dishes after kiddush.”
Our shul has replaced plastic coffee stirrers with wooden ones. We replaced our light bulbs with LED ones. We have only started to explore ways that we can reduce our carbon footprint. But through it all, we are realizing the impact that individuals and communities can make to curb this global crisis.
Last week, parashat Breishit taught us that humans were put in the Garden of Eden to “work it” and to “guard it” (Gen. 2:15).
And this week, in parashat Noah, we learn that “God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth” (Gen. 6:12).
The Jewish community has a moral obligation to re-examine the ways that we have corrupted our earth and what we can do to repair that.
Are you with me?
Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg is the rabbi of the Glen Rock Jewish Center and on the executive board of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. She received her rabbinic ordination and an M.A. in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She seeks to make Judaism accessible and meaningful to others through her writing, teaching, and community organizing efforts.